Indigenous Autonomy And Well-Being: Resources, Participation And Institutions

Raymond Foxworth, University of Colorado Boulder


What are the effects of indigenous political autonomy on the well-being of indigenous peoples? There has been a growing literature documenting the persistent patterns of underdevelopment and poverty in indigenous communities globally. At the same time, we have witnessed indigenous groups worldwide emerged to demand the right to autonomy and collective land rights. Does devolving decision-making power to indigenous communities improve the lives and well-being of indigenous peoples?

There literature on indigenous autonomy and political outcomes has largely followed two schools of thought that I label the “Activists” and the “Critics.” Activists have suggested that indigenous autonomy is a means to initiate a host of positive outcomes in indigenous communities. These activists have suggested that acknowledging and recognizing indigenous autonomy will lead to greater indigenous economic and social development, more engaged citizens, and accountable politicians. But critics of indigenous autonomy, largely academics who have tried to gain empirical leverage on the outcomes of autonomy, suggest that under autonomy, bad things happen in indigenous communities. The most damming of these arguments has suggested that indigenous communities actually resemble authoritarian enclaves—local spaces where vestiges of authoritarianism rule beyond the reach of democracy.

Using new and original data from across Panama, Mexico and the United States, and a variety of statistical methods, I enter this debate and examine the conditions under which autonomy is more likely to lead to positive changes in indigenous well-being. In all, I argue that indigenous autonomy has a robust and positive effect on indigenous well-being. But the overall effect of autonomy on altering indigenous well-being is conditioned on the following factors: the type of autonomy, political resources, participation and institutions. In all, I argue that there are certain conditions that make autonomy more effective. When indigenous autonomy forces ongoing interaction with the state, indigenous communities are able to check centralized power and gather state resources for local development. Moreover, when indigenous peoples engage in higher rates of political participation under autonomy, they are better able to draw resources from the state leading to greater local investment and improving well-being. Finally, I argue and find that under autonomy institutions also matter. When autonomy leads to the development of strong local institutional we are more likely to see better well-being outcomes for indigenous peoples. In all, my findings suggest that indigenous peoples and forms of organizations need to be engaged and empowered to overcome the perennial poverty in indigenous communities.